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Missions 101

The Gospel in an Animistic Culture (3)

Jan. 15, 2016By: Philemon YongAuthor Bio

Editors Note: This is part of a three-part series. The first post is here. The second post is here.

Animistic contexts present challenges to the preaching of the gospel. Many animists say they are believers, but at the same time, they tend to hold on to two conflicting belief systems. Growing up in the church, I was fully aware of the separation between church and what really mattered (cultural practices). As a child, I went to church, listened to the Bible preached, took communion, and followed the laws as laid out by the pastor. Yet after church, the members would carry out cultural practices that they believed necessary for the well-being of theirScreen_Shot_2016-01-12_at_2.59.04_PM families. For example, men would take chickens to offer to the spirits of the dead, in order to gain the favor of the ancestors. Never once was this practice addressed in the teachings of the church. Why?

The gospel often comes to the animist in simple and sometimes disjointed terms:  “You are a sinner, Jesus loves you, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, those who believe will go to heaven but those who do not believe will go to hell, you must turn away from your wicked ways.” Why do I say disjointed? The gospel comes not as a story that has a beginning, a middle and end. The parts, though true, are not always connected. Worse yet, the content of the beliefs is never defined, and the relation of the gospel to specific cultural practices is often left untouched, leaving the hearer to decide for himself what it means for him to now follow Jesus.

Bringing the gospel in such a context requires that one be well informed. Following are some suggestions about how to bring the gospel in an animistic context in a way that is relevant and fruitful.

 First, we must be spiritually mature (Eph 6:10-20). Rather than dismissing the belief system of the people, be sensitive and willing to have your own world-view challenged. It is clear in Ephesians 6:10-20 that we are indeed involved in a spiritual battle. People in an animistic context have believed this from the day they were born.

Second, we must be good students of culture. We go in with our western world-view.

We encounter a totally different world-view that does not make sense to us.  Neither does ours make sense to them, resulting in world-views in conflict. It is easy to live and teach in a culture without really connecting culturally. But in doing so, our message cannot take root in the lives of the people. It is important that we take time to understand the culture and belief systems before we make a judgment about what is allowed and what is not allowed. 

Third, declare what the people worship in ignorance. Having understood the culture and religious practices of the people, we can affirm that they are indeed religious but at the same time, that what they worship in ignorance, this we make known to them (Acts 17:22-28). This is where we walk through the Bible explaining who God is, how he has revealed himself, his purpose for creation, man, sin, judgment, Jesus as Savior (the promised Messiah), eternal life etc. The point here is to take note of the areas of their beliefs and in presenting the gospel, make sure that those are addressed. For example, does God really only deal with the world through the intermediaries of spirits? When one dies, what happens? Should people continue to offer sacrifices if the gospel is true? When the beliefs are addressed at the very beginning of the presentation of the gospel, conversion becomes a more complete event. They will turn from idols and animism to the one true and living God.

Possible Methodology

First, avoid the temptation to deny and reject the total belief system of the people. The problem with this approach is that you lose credibility, since they hold strongly that what you are discrediting is true, because they have experienced it. The gospel should not have as a first requirement a rejection of one’s culture in totality. Rather, we help point out the wrong aspects that must be rejected.

Second, affirm what is true in their belief system. The existence of God, reality of the spirit world and its influence on life, guilt of man and need for appeasement, fear of death etc. 

Third, after acknowledging elements of truth in their worldview, declare to them what they only partially know. For example:

Their belief in the existence of God is affirmed, but wrong in its view of God’s holiness, goodness, nearness, role in creation etc. The gospel answers these issues. Animism correctly states that God is creator, but fails to understand the purpose of creation and God’s role in creation. We can help enlighten on the purpose of creation, God’s role in creation, sin and creation, and the consummation of creation.

Reality of the spirit world drives daily life.  We can correct their view of the character of the spirits and their role in the world as well as their ultimate judgment. How has Christ’s death on the cross defeated the spirit world even though we wrestle against them now?

Spiritual nature of man.  Animists agree that man is also a spiritual being, but are wrong in thinking that the dead stay in close contact with the living. The gospel is clear the dead go to heaven or hell, depending on whether they die as believers in Christ or unbelievers.

Substitutionary death. In sacrifice, the life of the animal is given in place of the life of a person.  This is to set him free from any sins or evils committed, in an attempt to appease the spirits.  Often, the sinner is required to make a confession publicly before the sacrifice is made.  The gospel proclaims the true and only sacrifice that was offered once and for all. The gospel connects the blood of the sacrifice (Christ) and the forgiveness of sins and peace with God who is with us. 

When the animistic context and its grip on people is fully understood, and the gospel is fully explained as it relates to that context, true conversion is the result.  People will turn to redemption in Christ, seeing him as more perfect in every way, rather than simply adding him to their options in the spiritual realm.

Philemon Yong grew up in the Kom tribe, Cameroon. His parents were both Christians, and church was a regular part of their lives. Yet, at the same time, Philemon observed a strange mix where traditional religion was still also a part of life—even of many in the church! At age 13, with his family unable to send him to more schooling, Philemon left home to go to the city to find some jobs that would give him a better life.

When he was 23, through a friend Philemon was led to attend Cameroon Baptist Theological Seminary, Ndu. This began his training for ministry. Linda was a short-termer at CBTS that year, and they developed a very strong friendship. As a result, Philemon came to the USA, and he and Linda were married the following year. Bethel College accepted Philemon, and after completing his bachelor’s degree he continued on to earn a Masters of Divinity degree at Bethel Seminary (St. Paul). A year of short-term ministry back at CBTS fueled the desire to eventually return to Cameroon as a full-time teacher/theologian. This led Philemon to pursue Ph.D. work at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

From 2003-2010, Philemon has been teaching many courses at CBTS, solidly equipping future church leaders to preach and practice that Christ alone is the source for power and guidance in their lives. He also has a desire to write materials that will be helpful to the church in Cameroon/Africa. His unique preparation—knowing the culture firsthand and having solid theological training—equip Philemon to do this in an excellent way.

Philemon has experienced firsthand the confusing mix of Christianity and spiritism in the African church. He realizes that many church leaders have little theological training. Those with some training are trying to use a Western approach to theology in the African context, where the questions and problems call for a more African approach. His experiences, combined with his extensive theological studies in the USA, have put in him a desire for theological education in Africa.

Philemon and his wife Linda live in Minnesota. They have three children, Benjamin, Samuel, and Anna.

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